Legislators ask Morris Minnesota about broadband: They need public support

Today I attended a meeting at the Morris Public Library to talk about broadband. (Another meeting is happening in Willmar on Thursday.) On a really high level I’d note that people who want more State funding for broadband are really making the point that we need to talk about it early and often to make the case that broadband funding is necessary and a good investment.

Western Minnesota is an interesting place in terms of broadband. Lac qui Parle County has fiber to the home – nearly throughout the county due to ARRA funding. Big Stone got State funding to deploy FTTH there. Stevens County is pretty well served – as one person emphasized “according the definition” and then there are pockets of unserved areas. There was a gentleman from Herman who waxed eloquently on his situation, shown on the video below.

Attendees, especially the providers in the room, had a few suggestions for the next round of state funds:
Look again at prevailing wage issues. It seems as if the problem may not be regional differences as much as details such as regulations (pay overtime for more than 8 hours a day) with industry standards ( 4 10-hour days in a week).
Budget for 2 years of construction. Organizing contractors and securing fiber takes time.

We talked about a lot of details – but Representative Marquart made a good point, the details don’t matter much if we’re only talking about $10M with projects that are so much more expensive than that.

(More detailed notes follow.)

Attendees include people from Federated, Runestone, reporters, elected officials (Reps. Paul Thissen and Paul Marquart and Brent Olson, Big Stone County Commissioner) and general public. We started by using the Connect MN maps to determine served and underserved areas. It sounds like areas that are served by local providers have broadband; areas that don’t have local providers are not as well covered. Stevens County neighbors Big Stone County and is near Lac qui Parle County so they understand the model of working with a local provider.

Runestone covers Home City area and is looking to expand. They cover local camping area with WiFi – but need to work with city to expand coverage.) Federated is looking for a project perhaps similar to Big Stone and LqP. Federated serves Sevens County and Part of Swift. Farmers covered LqP. MidContinent is in Ortonville

Looking ahead to 2016 session. Broadband has been an interest in the past. We put in $20M in 2014 and $10M in 2015. We want to hear about how broadband is being used.

Paul M was at Farmefest last week. Sees broadband as being #1 goal for rural Minnesota. TC has broadband; rural areas don’t. Stevens County has about 90 percent service but surrounding counties don’t. Some areas have no access at all. As a teacher I really see the need and the world of haves vs have-nots.

Big Stone County got MN Funds (nearly $4M). They have $4M from community via bond. Federated will cover the rest, which is approximately $2M. Without the loan the project would not have happened.

Contraction won’t start in Sept because contractor is not available and still need to get fiber. We have heard from communities an residents for a long time that they want/need service. We will be only going into areas that have services that are deemed adequate. The Border to Border projects are huge for rural MN. BUT the 2015 funding only allows for one construction year, which is a problem. IN Big Stone we were allowed 2 construction years.

Construction involves availability of fiber. Announcing the winners ASAP makes it much easier to get fiber and organize contractors. Fiber is in high demand. The contractors are already looking a year out.

Prevailing wage makes the project difficult too. Out of a $10M we find $2M is going to prevailing wage. Sometimes the problem is the classification (such as 727 wire technician). They don’t have classifications for the broadband-specific jobs, which means finding a close fit but those close fits right now are for jobs that are higher paying. So it’s adding 20 percent to our project.

Contractors like to work 4 10-hour days – but regulations requires overtime for anyone who works more than 8 hours a day. That creates problems on all ends.

The problem in Herman is that the areas around us are covered and we work with Frontier. They have no interest/incentive in working with them. Verizon is in the area but it’s not enough to serve everyone and it’s expensive. WE have talked to other providers but there isn’t a market case especially with the public support.

What about wireless? With wireless we are consistently the weak communication link – hard to run a business or do homework.

Runestone said I could build my own fiber to them. But it would have cost him $20,000. He said he’d pay $3000 but $20,000 is too much. The problem is that is really costs $10,000 per mile to connect via fiber – to win a $50/month account. It’s tough to make those numbers work.

Attendees were frustrated to not get more funding from the State. They were surprised that the legislators talked about eliminating the Office of Broadband Development.

Impact of Broadband:

  • Broadband is like electricity – there’s great need and disinterest in rural utilities to provide the service. Maybe we need a statewide network rather than knitting together pockets of networks in communities across the state.
  • Mail service in rural areas has been getting worse. The State is not an equal opportunity employers if only some people have access to apply for jobs. Right now the library is often your only access. It’s only open so many hours. It’s often full. You only get so much time to use the computers.
  • Historically the government has stepped up with long term loans. And the minimal cost has more than been overcome with ROI via economic development. People today seem reticent to invest like they did with REA.
  • We don’t want a giveaway; we want to ante up. But without legislation to support broadband it won’t happen in rural areas; it’s too expensive.
  • Sometimes government has to give away – because there’s a huge ROI for those funds. Look at the “giveaways” from the 40s and 50s. It’s an investment – not a giveaway. Government provides services you can’t do privately – like policing!
  • We are relegated to dialup, cell and satellite. Those all have issues in bad weather.
  • Morris is a great place to live but a bad place to work. In other areas people can “work anywhere” because they can get online. We can’t consistently get online here.
  • Runestone is in year 10 of building FTTH. We do a little at a time. We’ve had requests from other areas. We help where we can – to the point of even getting them the cable when they can dig their own trenches. It’s just too expensive to make up the investment.
  • Frontier has accepted CAF funding to build out their networks. That’s scary to a local provider because people will go to the cheapest provider. SO it’s a risk to a small provider.
  • Another difficulty is that no one knows where all of the fiber lines run. We need a central database that provides that information.

People are understanding the value of broadband much more now than they did.

A provider could make a business case if they are only $3000-4000 per passing/customer. A mile of fiber is about $10-15,000.

Construction is a good use of one-time money. It might make sense to find a way

Why should the state help the big providers? It seems like they have made promises that they haven’t kept. The local providers have tried to pick up the slack for their neighbors but that doesn’t seem fair either. It makes a difference when a company is headquartered locally.

This entry was posted in Funding, MN, Policy, Rural by Ann Treacy. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ann Treacy

Librarian who follows rural broadband in MN and good uses of new technology (blandinonbroadband.org), hosts a radio show on MN music (mostlyminnesota.com), supports people experiencing homelessness in Minnesota (elimstrongtowershelters.org) and helps with social justice issues through Women’s March MN.

2 thoughts on “Legislators ask Morris Minnesota about broadband: They need public support

  1. Overtime appears to be a bogus issue. The U.S. Dept of Labor says “after 40 hours per workweek.” The MN DoLI website says “after 8hours per day or 40 per week.” A competent HR person should have no problem with these regs.

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